For most Christians, prayer is a “matter of the heart.” Although this is true, this is not the whole truth. When a man proposes to woman, does it matter which posture he assumes? Does the Army simply require soldiers to salute “from the heart?” If our bodies don’t matter, then why are we told to “close your eyes and bow your heads.” We know that what we do with our bodies matters. The question is, what is the Biblical way to pray?
In the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has the veteran demon write this to his nephew: “At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls” (Letter IV).
Historically, Reformed churches have understood this. Jeff Meyers writes: “Reformation churches knelt for prayer. Reformed pastors and theologians rebuked people that refused to do so. It would have been hard for them to conceive of any other posture for prayer (besides standing, of course). Nobody sat for prayer” (The Lord’s Service, 139. See also James Hastings Nichols, Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition, 41-42.)
Okay. So who cares about Reformed tradition! What does the Bible say? Good question. Basically, we see three main postures for prayer in the Bible: kneeling, lying prostrate on the ground, or standing with our hands lifted to heaven.
Ps. 95:6 – “Oh, come let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.”
Ps. 63:4 – “So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.”
1 Tim. 2:8 – “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or quarreling”
In another book I’m reading for the Christus Rex Study Center, Hughes Oliphant Old (one of the best authorities on Reformed worship) writes: “The central prayer of the synagogue was the Amida or, as it is sometimes called, the Prayer of the Eighteen Benedictions. The prayer was fairly well formulated by the first Christian century, and we can be fairly certain that Jesus and the Apostles followed this form of prayer” (Worship: Reformed According to Scripture, 95).
Old continues: “Amida means ‘standing,’ that is, it is the prayer that is said standing … The practice of standing for prayer would be maintained in the church for many centuries” (Worship, 96). [One reason Christians stood for prayer for so many centuries was because churches simply didn’t have pews until the Middle Ages!]
So, what do we do with all this? First, nothing. We need to realize that prayer is indeed a reflection of the heart, and that it is very easy to rush into liturgical change for all the wrong motives. Secondly, we need to study all of Scripture to see what God has revealed on this matter. To suggest that God might have an opinion on this is pretty revolutionary, so we need to make sure we are not just taking a few verses out of context. Thirdly, churches can introduce different postures at different times. At Christ Church, although we do sit during the more lengthy series of prayers of Praise, Thanksgiving, and Petition, we kneel for the Prayer of Confession, and we raise our hands as we sing the Gloria Patri at the end of the service. There is clearly a variety of prayer postures in Scripture, so mixing it up a little in our services is a good way to get people to experience the benefits of different postures, and to hopefully spur people on to learn more about this important subject.